Fuzzy frontiers of self-knowledge

Social Identities
October 18, 1996

Relentlessly interdisciplinary, Social Identities provides astimulating introduction to cultural studies and social theory. Its first four issues include pieces on American law, women writing in South Africa, memory, German national identity, and racism in Quentin Tarantino's movies, in addition to collections of photographs.

Identity within any society is ineluctably a miasma of historical experiences and ethnic distinctions. Many of the contributors to Social Identities make this point, especially in respect of the United States. Co-editor David Goldberg observes that: "as invisible as we may want to insist the colour line is (or at least should be), it still marks us indelibly as a society distinguished in black and white". The same point is made photographically, by Ken Light, in a stunning collection of African Americans at home and at work in the Mississippi delta.

Vitiating the journal and its contributions is the insistent assumption that identity is necessarily a measure of powerlessness and political weakness. Political weakness is unduly delimited to the left end of the political continuum, however. There are no contributions on neonationalist politics in France or Germany or Italy, for instance; and no attempt is made to comprehend the threat to identity felt among white working-class citizens manifest in recent extremist actions in the US. These are regrettable omissions from a journal purportedly dedicated to the "study of race, nation and culture".

Nonetheless, the analysis of groups whose experience is outside the mainstream of political life not only provides intrinsically interesting material about them but enriches analysis of the conventional. Conceptions of the liberal centre often assume its comfortable linear evolution in which right won out over might, and equality of rights before the law was granted - if on occasion hesitantly and belatedly - to all citizens. Unfortunately, this story neglects persisting inequalities and belittles the illiberal elements which were often stubbornly present in democracies until recently such as the US's system of segregated race relations. John Brigham's excellent essay on the application of American jurisprudence in three states within the US - Indian reservations, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and the contested ejido or community lands of Northern New Mexico - is a pertinent reminder of such illiberal anomalies. These "other countries" fall within American jurisprudence but enjoy less than full status. Puerto Ricans do not elect representatives to Congress and, in Brigham's view, experience a "colonial status in American law".

Hispanic claims to the Northern New Mexico territories stem from pre-1848 rights eviscerated in a Mexico-US treaty of that year. There is a somewhat recondite clash of legal traditions: the US denies the communitarian conception of land grants or mercedes permitted in Spanish law, which recognised tracts held in common. The historic claim to this territory is not wholly academic. Conflict erupted between the Alianza Federal de Mercedes and the National Guards in July 1967 at Tierra Amarilla, in New Mexico, less tragic in scale than Waco, but in terms of citizens at war with the federal government not without parallels. Brigham identifies the major problem as American jurisprudence, the liberal character of which, he maintains, sustains the fiction of equality of treatment: "the basic premise of liberal legalism is that when it comes to the law, Harlem is no different from other neighbourhoods in America. In American jurisprudence the different social life of law in Harlem or Northern New Mexico has no meaning". However, simply because the law has been imperfectly extended or unfairly applied does not imply, as he asserts, its inherent failure: the flaw is in application, not in the principle of equality of treatment.

The question of English nationalism - so palpably a chord of modern British politics - is disregarded in the major piece on the United Kingdom. The Warwick sociologist, Robin Cohen, dilates upon British identity through a discussion of its Celtic fringe (the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish) and the commonwealth. In his view, this concatenation produces a dynamic sense of British identity, shaped by external influences, and negotiated through the concept of "fuzzy frontiers": "a complex national and social identity is continuously constructed and reshaped in its (often antipathetic) interaction with outsides, strangers, foreigners and aliens - the 'others'. You know who you are only by knowing who you are not". Whether recent British debates about the UK and the European Union derive from fuzziness or clarity of identity might usefully have been considered with this approach, as might the idea of Englishness. Such questions about national identity and its tenacity are likely to feature in future debates addressed by this journal.

Desmond King is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Social Identities: (twice a year)

Editor - David Theo Goldberg and Abebe Zegeye
ISBN - ISSN 1350 4630
Publisher - Carfax
Price - £94.00 institutions £40.00 individuals

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